Come Sail Away
On a quest to create a weekend house for herself and her husband, Nancy Church scaled back her design fantasies and discovered creative ways to build on a budget.
Nancy Church, a Chicago-based gynecologic surgeon, always wanted a serene beach house where she could unwind from the stresses of her job. But with a thriving practice that keeps her close to the hospital, a large circle of friends, and a considerable collection of contemporary art and mid-century furniture, she had a few nonnegotiables. “It had to be nearby, budget-conscious, flexible, big enough for guests, and aesthetically suitable for my things,” says the doctor. To accomplish the task, she tapped her friend, local architect and fellow modernist John DeSalvo. Here, she tells us how they collaborated on a home that more than met her criteria.
I’ve renovated practically every place I’ve ever lived, but I’ve never had the chance to create a home from scratch. I spent a long time looking for the right spot to build a weekend retreat. In 2005, a colleague told me about a piece of property in Michigan City, Indiana. It was just an hour and ten minutes away from my Chicago condo, so a week later I grabbed John, and we ran to see it. We hadn’t yet worked together but had been close friends for 13 years and share the same aesthetic. I met him when I lived in a Bertrand Goldberg building and he came to rent my apartment but ended up buying his own.
The project started out as a typical construction story full of drawbacks and dilemmas. We got a builder from the real estate agent, and it cost about 30 percent more than originally estimated to clear and grade the land. Then we unexpectedly had to put up retaining walls to keep the dune from shifting. That made the building footprint even tighter and eliminated any fiscal wiggle room. So we had to figure out how to maximize the lot and our program to get everything in.
John’s design for the house hugs the edge of the available ground space, which gives us about 850 square feet on the first floor and another 550 on the second. He came up with the idea of putting the porch on the roof and a steel staircase on the outside of the house so it would be accessible from the sleeping loft. Putting the porch up there also made it private enough for a hot tub. I suggested we use sails for shade. The sun gets pretty harsh here in the summer, and all the boats in the nearby harbor inspired me.
By the time we were ready to break ground, it had been a year and a half since we cleared the lot, and the builder was missing in action. We heard he went bankrupt. We found Patrick Poland through friends, and he was a godsend. He has this encyclopedic knowledge of the area, so we were able to find subcontractors to make almost everything locally.
He was also able to find a steel fabricator to make the staircases, though John had to modify the design using perforated steel and tension steel rope, and eliminate the glass in the catwalk, to make it affordable. They used the same railing system to edge the catwalk and sleeping lofts. Our bedroom is lined with floor-to-ceiling frosted sliding glass doors for privacy, but the other one is totally open to the living area below it.
The kitchen is a combination of Ikea upper cabinets and stock MDF cabinets that John clad with bamboo veneers. I came up with an idea to double our counter space. Two storage units under the countertop roll out and are topped with butcher block, so they become food prep islands. John clad the MDF shelves and cabinets surrounding the fireplace with the same bamboo veneers we used in the kitchen, which gives them a very luxurious, custom-made feel.